Wednesday, October 1, 2008

No cakewalk for Obama

By Vivid writers: Daniel Jianu and Randal Mickens

Barack Obama has captured the attention and imagination of American people and of the rest of the world in so many ways that it has become difficult not to think that he will become the next US President

Vivid Magazine Romania
26/09/2008

Barack Obama has captured the attention and imagination of American people and of the rest of the world in so many ways that it has become difficult not to think that he will become the next US President. After all, his combination of historical achievements, great oratorical skills, good looks, charismatic and intelligent personality and charmed political career seems irresistible and Hollywood-made to propel him into the White House. He won against the formidable Clinton political machine after a long and bitter primary campaign and he is rightfully now the Democratic Party nominee, the standard-bearer of his party with the honour and the historical opportunity to compete against John McCain and become President of the United States this autumn.

Still, there are lingering questions and doubts about Obama winning in November.

Primary campaign

Obama outperformed and outfoxed the mighty Clintons during a hard fought primary election. But the race went too long and became too nasty at some point, though it was great and entertaining drama. Hillary was under no obligation to get out of the race until the end, but her campaign's harsh and vitriolic attacks on Obama often mimicked Republican attacks and most likely were the main reason why she was not seriously considered as a potential running mate. Moreover, these attacks escalated in intensity as her hopes of beating him approached vanishing point, and required lots of money for which, ironically, Obama is now holding fundraising events to pay off as a sign of Democratic party unity. Nevertheless, looking forward, it seems far better that the Reverend Wright issue, Rezko financial improprieties, Obama's bitter comments and all the other controversies are out there in the public domain and old news as it is much better for Obama that they were run through in the spring than the summer or the autumn.

Yes, Obama did win the nomination, but Hillary found a way to halt his momentum and to uncover potential weaknesses behind his campaign that can be used against him in the general campaign. He still hadn't been able to easily win votes from her base, could not win big size, only Democratic primary states, at least not without Independent and Republican voters, and struggled getting white voters from crucial states such as Ohio and Michigan. This means that, he may have serious problems on 4th November because many independent and Republican voters will be split between him and John McCain and hence he needs the Democratic voters to coalesce around his campaign.

Obama's hold on some voters seems at times a bit shaky, not as solid and loyal as Hillary's base seems to be even now in defeat. An even more serious problem is that he is vulnerable to attacks from the right. In his previous electoral runs for office, Obama never faced serious vetting or attacks from the right side of the political spectrum as his general campaigns were relatively easy to win.

Move to the centre

Over the last couple of months, Obama has reversed his positions on several important issues. On Nafta, the Iraq war and the Fisa bill, Obama is now taking positions opposite to what he said during the Democratic primary. Back in the day, Obama also voted against the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. However, suddenly he agreed with their majority opinion in the Heller gun rights case, and with their dissent against the liberal majority's ruling to ban the death penalty for rape. He even endorsed spending more money on faith-based charities, a core plank of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" philosophy.

His voting record in the Senate and in Illinois, as well as his primary positions, would make him the most liberal presidential candidate since George McGovern in 1972. It doesn't mean necessarily that he is truly liberal, but that his lack of intense competition or pressure from the Republicans in his general election campaign for the US Senate in 2004 has not created any incentives for him to develop a more nuanced philosophy of governing or political principles. His only major need was to placate the more progressive voters in Illinois and cater to their needs and pet issues. He may not be liberal and he may after all hold centrist/pragmatic positions but he did not have the need to develop them fully into a coherent vision and rhetoric. This has slowly started to show on the campaign trail as some of his statements and campaigning rhetoric hints at lack of confidence and increased artificiality that have turned him into just another regular centrist politician full of ambition and empty promises.

Obama's move to the centre has alienated many hard-core supporters as well as many independent voters who seem not to respond to his more centrist positions. Independent voters were excited about Obama's newness and above-all politics style even if his stances were to the left of their general preferences. Unfortunately, he's slowly losing them by becoming less passionate and honest and a more pandering and centrist candidate. For these reasons, Hillary Clinton or someone who can replicate Hillary's support among white working class voters might have been the best choice to join the ticket as his VP nominee. As it turned out, Obama's choice for Vice President, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware can easily give credence and substance to his centrist policy platform and release him to do what he does best and that is running as an outsider and honest candidate.

The big question left unanswered at the end of the Democratic primary campaign is whether Barack Obama can win the November election against John McCain without Hillary Clinton on the ticket. The general consensus after the primary was that he can do it without her, and that actually Hillary could be a problem for him as she'll do more to unite the GOP base voters, who still aren't thrilled with McCain, than she would bring to the Democratic ticket. Under this scenario, Obama would have had no problem attracting her base supporters, who also happen to be base democratic supporters. Hillary's base supporters that are still lukewarm toward Obama are white working class voters, who are registered Democrats and largely primary voters. The chances are they are going to vote Democratic in large numbers in November, especially now that Joe Biden who comes from a working class background is Obama's nominee.

Nevertheless, McCain has his own problems with the Republican base. According to Mooney, less than half of the 2004 Pioneers and Rangers have bothered to contribute their own money to McCain. This is evidence that the Republican base still hasn't warmed completely to McCain. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is McCain's penchant for crossing the aisle and abandoning long-held conservative beliefs on issues such as global warming, campaign finance reform, torture of prisoners, and immigration. To the base, he needs to come across as a conformist and mainstream conservative candidate. In the end, the great majority of Bush's Pioneers and Rangers will probably donate money to McCain because they have nowhere else to go. However, the longer they make McCain wait, the more McCain will have to appease them by moving further and further to the right, which is exactly what he has been doing lately. To please his less than enthusiastic base, all McCain has been talking about recently is about making the Bush tax cuts permanent to remedy the economic situation, which most people don't see as a solution to the ever increasing financial pressure on middle-class Americans while also needing to stay the course in Iraq.

McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running-mate also plays a long way into pleasing his conservative base. Palin's speech at the Republican convention was a complete success, hitting all the major points and doing so in a very effective way. Her style seems to be one of diffusing tension with humor and charm while driving home the point and giving those GOP base voters a shot of enthusiasm. McCain's pick of her as running mate could turn out to be a stroke of genius as well as luck. After all, with all that's come out about her recently in the press, she is the poster child for the right wing's family values plank- a mother of five with a special needs child (down syndrome), a pregnant teenage (17 years old) daughter who is not having an abortion but rather going through with marriage to the baby's father (18 yrs old) despite their young age (and no matter how coerced this arrangement may seem) with the pledged unconditional love and support of the family to "work through this like every other family does". She has political record (albeit a brief one in public office, just like Obama) and has a very high approval rating in Alaska. She was very effective in her speech in getting voters, especially mothers, to relate to her. How this will translate into appeal from independents and Hillary supporters (which McCain is clearly going after) remains to be seen, but so far Palin has managed to attract enormous attention to the Republican ticket.

Economy v national security

This election is a stark contrast between two different candidates of two different generations. American voters will have a very clear choice between very different personalities with two very different views on where to lead the country and how to tackle the multitude of challenges facing the US today.

The US economy has eclipsed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the major issue affecting most voters. The general situation of the US economy is dire. Record high gas prices is causing the price of food to increase significantly which is squeezing the middle class while incomes have not kept up with inflation and the skyrocketing cost of living. According to polls, most of the voters trust Democrats and Obama more than the Republicans on the economy issue. It seems hard to imagine that many voters will choose McCain with these issues hitting them this hard in the pocketbooks. He has already stated earlier in the primary that "he doesn't really know that much about economic issues" (direct quote) and that will come back to haunt him as Obama will shred every proposal he proffers as catering to the rich and not caring about the middle classes. No doubt McCain will try to play down his weaknesses on the domestic front by basing his entire campaign theme on his status as a war hero and POW to make the point that Obama is inexperienced and not to be trusted on defence and national security issues.

And this is the rub of this election campaign. At the end of the day, one of these two issues, the economy and the war in Iraq, will determine the outcome in November. As a Republican in 2008, McCain is on the losing side of almost all domestic and economic policies as Democrats in general are enjoying large favourable margins in opinion polls regarding the state of the economy and who's most capable of restoring economic growth and security. So then why is Obama under-performing on these issues and cannot seem to be able to break the 50 per cent mark in any polls, hence allowing McCain to have a real shot at winning this election? Most pundits and analysts and even local Democratic officials are pushing Obama to take a more aggressive stance by reversing to a hard-hitting economic populism that helped Al Gore surge in the polls back in 2000.

Populism would work for Obama if the assumption that the economy is the most pressing issue for American voters and most likely to determine this election is doubtless true. And indeed for older white working class voters who are not entirely sold on Obama it seems that their choices would be made on the basis of class. Unfortunately, if these two situations were really true, then John Kerry would have easily won in 2004 as the same issues, more or less, monopolised the political debate back then. Yes, American voters worry about their economic situation and yes, generally they tend to trust the Democrats more on these issues, but then again, this has been true for almost 40 years and during this time only two Democratic candidates have ever made it to the White House.

In fact, most voters who are undecided as of now will easily ignore all policy details or differences between the two candidates and will tend to make their choice on the basis of culture. Obama speaks in a more academic, middlebrow tone and manner and gives the impression that he carefully considers his options before reacting; his reaction is always measured, rational and perfectly competent. And this is his biggest weakness when trying to appeal to voters who are still trying to make up their mind and are looking for subtle, culturally oriented cues from Obama to alleviate their insecurity and show himself as one of them. Sometimes these cues are taken from the statements, arguments, and debates about defence and national security issues and not economic ones because at the end of the day it is much easier for voters to decide when one candidate speaks loudly and strongly, even if wrongly, on some international affair than about arcane domestic policy. Most voters who decide on economic issues have already made up their minds, as these are the issues that affect their daily life and their understanding of which candidate is better for their social and economic position is clear. Unfortunately, the opposite is true about international security issues which are very theoretical and not part of the daily reality for many voters. Debate about these issues can leave voters confused and unsure of themselves and many will then revert to knee-jerk reactions. This is where Obama's cautious style of speaking does not help in convincing and reassuring these voters who are looking for direct and more instinctual reactions and decisions from the candidates. McCain's biggest advantage lays in the same area as his maverick style and his direct, off the cuff manner of speaking helps him project an image of someone ready for any challenge, someone who is one of them.

Still, whatever happened so far during the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton and the general election against McCain, Obama still has substantial structural advantages this year as well as plenty of time and opportunities to dispel any lingering questions about his candidacy. With the party conventions out of the way, the forthcoming presidential debates are the next major and attention grabbing events that can allow Obama to establish himself as the candidate most suitable for the White House. A united party during the Democratic Convention in Denver, a solid performance during the debate can help Obama connect with voters and make them comfortable with a new era in American politics. If Obama becomes president this fall, it will be a statement of how far the US has changed in the last 50 years by allowing a black politician to enter the White House through the main door.

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